Anxiety, Antisemitism, and Acts of Love and Kindness: Graduating in the Spring of 2024



June 10, 2024

“Did you see they started an encampment this morning?” 

I did not know who “they” were as I read my friend’s text on the final day of classes for the spring semester, but I made sure to visit the Emory University quad to see it with my own eyes. There were a couple dozen mostly identical green tents and banners that read “Free the Land, Free Atlanta, Free Palestine” and “Gaza Solidarity Encampment.” I did not recognize anyone among the demonstrators but most were obscuring their faces in some way. At a welcome table, a protester handed me a flier calling out “corporate donors who invest directly [in] Cop City Israeli apartheid.” I realized I would need to call my grandfather, as when I spoke to him earlier in the week, he asked if there was any news of “one of those camps” starting, and I told him no.

I am a Jew, born and raised, but so many facets of my Jewish identity were strengthened after I arrived at Emory. For the first time, I had a large Jewish community. I took Jewish history classes. Shabbat became a weekly staple. The world of Judaism, which I had already loved dearly for the community it provided and the sense of ethics it instilled in me, became so much bigger and more beautiful.

Campus Life Changed Post-October 7

Things on campus were different after the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7. Every Jewish person I know knew someone who was killed, kidnapped, or injured that day – or knew someone who did. I was fortunate enough to fall in the latter category, but the collective fear, grief, and anguish of my community deeply affected me. In the following weeks, chalkings and fliers appeared around campus, accusing those who supported Israel of supporting genocide. Students chanted “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free” and “There is only one solution: Intifada Revolution!” Student organizations issued demands that the university “separate entirely from any [Z]ionists.” Weeks, then months, passed, but I could never quite quell a rising sense of anxiety. I conjured up the image of my great-great-great grandmother Anna, who fled Russia as a teenager, her mother murdered in a pogrom. She told me it was time to go. Now. 

In February, walkouts for a “Free Palestine” became weekly, and things got even more challenging for Jewish students on campus.  In our school’s art lab, students made 13 baby effigies, “one for every thousand children murdered by the IDF.” The Graduate Student Government Association introduced and passed a BDS resolution. An event held off campus at the Emory Chabad House, in which two IDF soldiers discussed their recent experience in Gaza, became a site of protest for students and Atlanta community members. People yelled antisemitic slurs at Jewish students attending the event, and a Jewish student claimed he was assaulted. On Instagram, students posted they “cannot believe their tuition dollars” funded the event, blatant misinformation that stirred a deep fear in me. At Passover, we discussed the viability of the future of Jews in this country. When I said “next year in Jerusalem,” it felt different than last year. 

Encampment Protest Prompts Cancellation of Senior Events

On April 25, the encampments we were seeing around the United States came to Emory’s campus. 

While I was in class, the Atlanta Police Department forcefully dismantled the encampment. We received emergency text alerts warning us to stay clear of the area. The police used tear gas, tasers, and brute force to arrest 28 demonstrators, including 20 members of the Emory community. Student organizations quickly published statements condemning Emory’s administration, including our university president, and the Atlanta Police Department. At Passover lunch with Hillel, we smeared cream cheese on matzah and speculated over what was going to happen next, lamenting the events would only lead to increased tensions and antisemitism. A Jewish friend told me she was followed that morning repeatedly by a non-student demonstrator, and that her professor and friends who also wear outward signs of their Judaism – Stars of David, kippot – were as well. 

The last weeks before graduation were a blur, complicated by the amending of final exams and the cancellation of so many senior events due to concerns for students’ safety and well-being. A week before I was scheduled to walk across my graduation stage, our main university commencement, and all graduation ceremonies, were moved to a stadium 40 minutes and 22 miles from campus, and honestly, I felt relieved. While I did not think it meant graduation would occur without disruption, I felt this decision might lessen the chance of violence. 

After all, when I looked at the metal structure originally meant to be my graduation stage, on the same quad that had been so active with protests these past weeks, I could see the top of graffitied letters against the adjacent building, the large wooden board placed by the university that didn’t quite cover the message, “DEATH TO ISRAEL.”

During the times I was shaken, scared, or angry in recent months, I repeatedly found comfort among the Jewish community at Emory. Shabbat dinners at Hillel, and especially student-led services before then, were crucial to my mental well-being, as was a game night hosted by Hillel the evening after the encampment went up. On a different evening, when I walked out of a common space on campus after hearing antisemitic rhetoric, I stumbled onto a Jewish solidarity event held by the three major Jewish organizations on campus. We ignored counter-protesters and others taking videos at the edge of our gathering. My heart and soul felt full as we sang, danced, and expressed joy in our Jewish identities. I told my friends about what I had just heard, and they hugged me and held my hands. I asked for the support I needed at that moment, and my community was right there for me.

At Commencement, a Tribute to the Hostages

On graduation day, I sat on the floor among my peers, carefully arranging my stoles and cords so they were all even and visible. I adjusted the silver dog tag hanging at my chest, one that read “BRING THEM HOME NOW!/ הלב שלנו שבוי בעזה.” Attached was a pin of a yellow ribbon, and a teal ribbon I affixed with a safety pin to the chain, honoring survivors of sexual assault. I decided to wear the tag the day prior, when I saw an Instagram post instructing students to wear keffiyehs during commencement and hand the dean Palestinian flags when crossing the stage. The last several months, I felt confused by so much, but I knew then and now, as a Jew, I owe the hostages being held in Gaza – members of my tribe – love, prayers, and attention.

When it was time to cross the stage, I touched my necklace before shaking the dean’s hand. I could not hear much of anything onstage, though I knew my friends and family were cheering for me. As I walked, I wondered if our university president could hear the boos students shouted at him from the floor when he spoke earlier. On my way back to my seat, I waved and smiled at my family, catching the eye of a Jewish friend, someone I had fallen out of touch with over the past two years, but who always greets me with a smile and hug when we meet. He gestured to my dog tag, and put his hand on his heart then to his lips, blowing me a kiss. I nodded and returned the gesture.

At Hebrew school, we sang songs about how the world stood on three things: Torah, service, and acts of loving-kindness, but I have only come to fully appreciate the third pillar in recent months.  Amid the great lows, the interactions and expressions of love and concern from my Jewish and non-Jewish friends and family made all the difference. Those small moments remind me why I dare to hope we can build stronger coalitions based on mutual respect between Jewish and non-Jewish people. In the meantime, I stay alert. I am also profoundly aware that the safety of Jews in the United States is not guaranteed, and I have a Jewish state where I can find refuge if the need ultimately arises.

Emma is a recent alumna of Emory University, graduating with a degree in anthropology and international studies. Post-graduation, she returned to her hometown of Phoenix, Arizona to work on local political campaigns through the 2024 election cycle. She plans to gain professional experience over the next few years before attending law school.